Watching the Syrian refugee crisis as a former refugee

When the war started, I was seven and in the middle of a cartoon marathon.

My brother, father, and I were staying at a cabin in Pale, a small mountain town above Sarajevo, Bosnia, which was our home. Saturdays were my favorite because one of the channels played cartoons all day long; we would spend those lazy days watching them and playing in the lush woods outside. The news suddenly interrupted the cartoons and we learned that violent riots in Sarajevo had turned fatal and several individuals had been shot. The growing tensions between the Bosnian and Serb populations in Yugoslavia had erupted in a genocidal war, which would result in the breakup of the country and over 200,000 casualties. My father knew we had to get our things and leave so he called my aunt, who was able to arrange transport to Sarajevo through army convoy.

A woman we had met during the trip volunteered to drive us to our apartment when we arrived at the edge of the city, now barren and still. My father instructed my younger brother and I to duck in the backseat in case any stray bullets made their way into the car. As we drove through downtown I noticed that all of the apartment and kiosk windows were shattered, the objects inside covered by glass yet undisturbed. At home, we hastily packed suitcases, knowing that these belongings were all we could take with us. We chose some clothing and many photos and spent a restless night at our cousin’s house, where we were roused periodically by sniper fire. In the morning, we loaded army planes which were taking us to Belgrade, Serbia. We left with my aunts and cousins while my father was forced to stay, as only women and children were being evacuated. The passengers on the plane were pale and bleary eyed, the thick silence periodically interrupted by soft cries.

My brother and I lived with my grandmother in Belgrade, Serbia. We had little money so often relied on UNICEF care packages to sustain us. We sometimes waited for hours to receive bags full of rice, Spam, powdered eggs, and other non-perishables. School was disorienting and difficult for me; Serbian schools used the Cyrillic alphabet while Bosnian used Latin, so I had to learn to write all over again.

Few phone lines in Sarajevo functioned so we heard from my father infrequently and most communication was through letters, which were not always received. I think that, as children, we couldn’t really grasp the breadth of what was going on at that time. Perhaps it was for the best, because back at home, the acts being committed were appalling and incomprehensible, even for adults. We got used to life without my father, always pushing aside the thought that we may never see him again. Fortunately, he was able to escape, nearly two and a half years after we had last seen him. Knowing there was no future for an ethnically mixed family like ours, he decided we were moving to the United States, the only country that would grant us passage.

America seemed like a dream to a child growing up in Central Europe, a land of affluence and opportunity. But I had no desire to leave my friends and school, so my grandmother fibbed and told me were only going to go there for a year. My great uncle lived in a rural town in California and gave us a house to live in, which will always be the most incredible gift I have ever received. My father was a successful journalist in Bosnia but his limited language skills forced him to become a construction worker, a profession he had never held before. It was incredibly humbling for him, but he was all my brother and I had and he wanted to provide for us at all costs.

Every day was a struggle, an adventure, or both. Daily tasks were difficult, due to our unfamiliarity with the culture and limited financial means. But we persevered and made this country our new home, bit by bit. And we were able to do so because of opportunity—there were rescue organizations that helped us, people who welcomed us into their neighborhood, and a loved one who gave us a home. Looking back, I recognize those times as some of the most painful of my life but in an obscure way, appreciate the hardships we went through. I am more resilient, empathetic, and appreciative of the comforts of my life now.  I have little to complain about. Three years of my childhood were not stolen from me, punctuated by mortar shell explosions and spent in seemingly ceaseless fear. I know that I was incredibly, immensely lucky.

The Syrian refugee crisis going on right now is one of unprecedented proportions and seems nearly impossible to manage. Watching the news is heartwrenching for me. Not only because so many people are suffering and displaced but because conflicts like the one I lived through are still happening. So many lives are affected by the terrible decisions of so few. It would be absurd to say that “I know how these people they feel,” because I absolutely do not. My experience was easy compared to the unfathomable circumstances some of these refugees have to endure. I arrived to this country on a plane, without the fear that one of my loved ones might die before we reached our destination.

As an adult, I had always wanted to get involved with an organization that helps refugees but had never accomplished the task, due to lack of time or opportunity. I was elated when I found the Refugee Center Online, which provides valuable resources to incoming refugees through their website. This includes information about the American culture, help with finding mentors, and guidance on how to do necessary tasks, such as opening a bank account or taking public transportation. I’m currently helping with compiling information on the cultural backgrounds of incoming refugee children. The goal is for educators to learn about their student’s experiences and upbringing so they can better assist them as they adjust to their new status quo. My goal is to do more but I’m happy that my efforts may one day help a displaced child who felt as confused and lonely as I did. After all, every little but helps.

Birth is a lottery of sorts and we cannot control where or how our lives will start. Any of us could have come into the world in a country whose awful state would force us to get in a boat, with nothing but the clothes on our bodies and a hope for a better future. It is an overwhelming crisis but I have hope that the global community will find a way to care for the displaced Syrian population, to relieve them from the harrowing circumstances they have had to endure. They deserve to have their basic human needs met, as we all do. My wish is that they will one day stand where I am now, healthy and safe, seeing their escape from war as a terrible event they had to endure before their new lives began.

[Image via Shutterstock]